The Forgotten Militia

January 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | 2 Comments

Somehow, I’m always last one to comment on articles like this, but after seeing it generate a substantial amount of comment in the blogosphere, I’ve finally gotten around to reading A.C. Thompson’s detailed, forensic and chilling account of the violence that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

For anyone too pushed for time to read it all, the story is centred around New Orleans’ Algiers Point; a rich, white enclave within the predominantly black district of Algiers. Unlike most of the city, ‘The Point’ was lucky to avoid the worst of Katrina’s damage, but with the city’s infrastructure at the point of collapse and the local/national media sensationalising looting and civil disorder among the city’s black population, its residents resolved to protect their homes using any means necessary.

And so the residents hoarded guns and ammunition, built barricades and makeshift alarms to detect trespassers, patrolled their ‘territory’ in SUVs and aimed weapons at anyone suspected of threatening the ‘peace’ of their neighbourhood. What followed was a spate of shootings which resulted in a number of serious casualties and even murders. In every single incident Thompson uncovered, the shooters were white and the victims were black. To this day, none of the assailants has ever been charged with a crime, nor has the city’s police department sought to investigate any wrongdoing. As one of the militia observed “no jury would convict.”

The Nation describes this story as evidence of a ‘race war’, and that’s certainly not too far off the mark. Whilst the victims weren’t hunted down per se, nor shot solely for being black, the reason they encountered violence and intimidation was because in that isolated, racially segregated and utterly paranoid part of New Orleans, their skin colour made them seem like a threat. Equally disturbing is the ambivelence Thompson’s interviewees showed toward victims’ lives, the lack of reflection on whether – in hindsight – the residents did the right thing, and the ease with which they were all described as ‘niggers’.

We should remember, of course, that these were exceptional (and hopefully unrepeatable) circumstances: the city’s infrastructure had collapsed, law enforcement was at a minimum, essential resources were in short supply, lots of people had access to a firearm and city officials and the media were complicit in spreading stories about violent black boogeymen. With such chaos and fear, otherwise decent people can be driven to extremes of violence and cruelty they might otherwise have not been capable of, and there is no suggestion anywhere in Thompson’s piece that this ramshackle militia was formed solely with the intention of killing black people. Whatever we can or cannot learn from this story, I think we should restrain ourselves from seeing it as representative of race relations in America, in Louisiana or even in New Orleans.

Nonetheless, there are some questions this story raises which I think should be addressed more widely. As Rebecca Solnit asks, why has this story never been a part of the accepted history of Katrina? In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we heard plenty about black men committing acts of violence, looting and rape; why is it that the story of a white armed militia, which has been an accepted as fact in New Orleans for years, has never been a part of the narrative? Furthermore, why has it required a liberal magazine to publish this story before the New Orleans Police Department decided to investigate exactly what happened in Algiers Point?

Beyond that, the story raises uncomfortable questions about our social psychology: how we behave when the state loses its ability to police and protect us; whether social groups are intrinsically incapable of regulating the use of violence; whether, in times of crisis, the identity politics of class and race will always shape and constrain human solidarity.

But the last and most obvious conclusion, of course, is that these events needn’t have happened. If the levees had been stronger, if New Orleans had been sufficiently evacuated, if enough law enforcement had been put in place to deal with the aftermath, and if state and federal bodies had been swift enough to deal with the human catastrophe which followed, there might never have been a need for an Algiers Point militia, and its fear-stricken victims might have survived.

I suppose the time for New Year’s Resolutions has passed, but let’s hope we won’t have to say ‘never again’ ever again.

Photo by Flickr user wallyg (Creative Commons)

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2 Comments »

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  1. I live in Algiers. Not “the Point”, but in a racially mixed middle class neighborhood. I evacuated, but returned home Sept. 7, before it was officially opened. The police told us “If you see looters, just shoot them. Don’t bother calling us.” There was no “race war” in Algiers or in New Orleans in general. There were lots of law abiding citizens of all races who were forced to defend their homes when law enforcement broke down. People from both extremes – liberal activists and white supremacists – would like to cast this as a race war to further their own divisive agendas. Those of us who live in the racially diverse neighborhoods of New Orleans are just trying to live together and get on with our lives. We are more concerned with rebuilding the levees and rebuilding our city than is second guessing the actions taken by desperate people trapped here while “Brownie” was doing “a heck of a job

  2. John,

    Thanks for that comment. As I hope came across in the post above, these were clearly extraordinary circumstances and a criticism we could both make of that Nation article is that it doesn’t make that clear enough. You’re right, too, that the true reflection of the city’s character is that people from all backgrounds are working together to restore what Katrina stole from the city. I’m sure that anyone who tries to use these sad incidents as reflection of the city in general is making a big mistake.


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